Welcome news came from the Federal government this week: NYS won $700 million in the second round of President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) education initiative. NY’s eligibility for the funding was greatly improved due to the diligent work of State Senators Velmanette Montgomery and Bill Perkins, who had to walk a tightrope amid intense pressure from competing interests. Those interests were principally hedge funds, charters school proponents and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). President Obama’s RTTT initiative to improve public education was introduced in 2009 with a $4 billion pot of funding states would compete for. The competition had four basic criteria. States must adopt more challenging standards and better assessments. Schools and school districts must establish rigorous plans to develop and evaluate teachers and principals and reward credible success. States must implement data-systems that track student academic performance and link student progress to teachers. States must commit to restructuring lowest performing schools.
NYS’s RTTT Round 1 application was not strong enough to win, but the assessment rubric clearly outlined areas the state had to reform in order to be competitive. In order to qualify for RTTT Round 2, NYS had to enact meaningful reforms.
The state Senate was challenged to create, among other things, a charter school reform bill that would increase the number of charter schools in the state from 200 to more than 400. An initial bill introduced in the Senate simply did that. Sen. Montgomery, Perkins, and others refused to vote for the bill until it contained meaningful reform.
Before the final charter school bill went into law, State Comptroller Tom Dinapoli had begun to audit charter schools in Buffalo. Charter school advocates went to court to stop him. The comptroller was always able to audit schools, or any agency that has public funding. But he was not specifically authorized to audit charter schools. Because of the court cases, the state comptroller stopped the audits prior to the time that the state Senate passed the final bill. The comptroller now has the authority to audit charter schools.
With the new bill that Montgomery and Perkins voted in favor of, charter schools are now required to accept among their student body a certain percentage of students who are English language learners, or special needs children. The purpose is to equalize the makeup of their student body, so that the existing public schools do not have the sole responsibility of educating students who have special needs.
No longer will a for-profit corporation be allowed to manage or sponsor a charter school. Based upon what the state comptroller was uncovering when he initially attempted to conduct audits, there were a number of relationships between charter schools and for-profit entities, where the for-profit corporations were using the charter schools as a conduit to siphon money to the for-profit entity. This process had nothing to do with educating students and once the initial auditing process revealed this information, the state Senate took the opportunity to craft legislation that became part of the charter school reform bill.
Also in the bill is a provision to require every charter school to have public meetings open to parents, i.e., regular parent meetings. Regarding the placement of charter schools, if a charter school is going to be places within an existing public school, they must have public hearings, where the parents of the students in the existing school have an opportunity to weigh in on such a decision.
Because of the stance Montgomery and Perkins took on insisting on these legislative reforms, NYS was positioned to win Round 2 of Race to the Top and $700 million.
The process was not easy. Montgomery was confronted with resistance. First, she attended a meeting with charter school people in her district. They were extremely agitated and angry with Montgomery because they had been told Montgomery was opposed to charter schools. Then she found out there were three state Senators – Montgomery, Bill Perkins (Harlem), and Shirley Huntley (Queens) who were going to be targeted by hedge fund campaign contributors who invest in charter schools.
On the ground, that means Montgomery is being challenged by Mark Pollard, Perkins is up against Basil Smikle, a former Bloomberg consultant, and Huntley faces Queens businessman Lynn Nunes. (Huntley has the added problem of having voted against same-sex unions, and has attracted that constituency’s ire.) The Pollard, Smikle, and Nunes campaigns are substantially supported by hedge fund dollars. Some hedge fund individuals have given the maximum amount to Montgomery’s opponent. None of them have addresses in her district. Some live in Connecticut, or on Madison and Park Avenues in Manhattan.
Montgomery stands on her record of achievement serving her district and NYS. She received Legislator of the Year Award from the NYS Bar Association. Chief Judge of NYS, Jonathan Lippman presented the award an made remarks about her record.
When she took position as chair of Children and Family Services committee, Montgomery made the determination that “the children in this state – to a large extent – depended upon me to be an advocate for them. They don’t have a voice. They don’t have money. They can’t vote. I take the responsibility seriously. I decided to be a catalyst to organize all of those voices in NYS on behalf of the children and youth in the state by bringing funding for prevention services. By bringing funding to the community to increase the capacity of community based organizations that serve families and children. The legislation that strengthens families also benefits children.”
State Senator Bill Perkins corroborates Montgomery’s view. Perkins’ district in Harlem has the highest concentration of charter schools in the city. Parents came to him with numerous concerns regarding charter schools. English language learners, homeless students, and those with disabilities were not welcome in charter schools. Co-placement of charter schools in public school buildings became an issue. There was no accountability or transparency, key themes under the Democratic Senate majority.
When Perkins was a candidate for the state Senate, he made a commitment to the constituency that he would “work to make Albany more transparent and accountable” especially after the Brennan Center declared it the most dysfunctional legislative body in the nation, “even before I got there.” He decided to do what he could to make Albany “more responsive. I got that opportunity last year, when [Democrats] became the majority. He knew that there would be those who disagree. On the other hand, Perkins said his job “is not to do what is agreeable, but that which is right. Ultimately, we came up with a better [charter school] bill.”
The Senate’s legislative action on charter schools was not an aberration, but part of the Senate’s stance on reform. “The type of reform we tried to make can be exemplified in terms of the public authorities, by making them more transparent. The establishment of the Independent Public Authorities Budget Office, similar to the Independent Budget Office of the city, will be able to keep track of what is, and is not going on with the public authorities,” said Perkins. “In that reform theme, I think we have taken a giant step with regard to charter schools in terms of the reforms measures that we were able to put in the bill that ultimately resulted in the success of Race to the Top. There is a lot of work still to be done, especially when we are talking about the education of our children.”
New York was one of nine states and the District of Columbia to win in the second round of the Race to the Top competition. The other states were Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.